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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Two Poems by Tom Hennen -- Poetry Daily, 6/18/2013

"I Think of Bread and Water and the Roots of a Tree All Wet" and "Landscape of Night" from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems (Copper Canyon Press)
poems found here

First lines:
A description of the freeway


exploring poetry while playing around with the poems

— reformatted with minor editing, Aug 1, 2014

These poems offer some good opportunities to explore poetics and wording and such through playing around with the poems. But before I start that, let me take a moment on the brevity of the poems. There's nothing wrong with short or small poems, of course. My question here is more with their presentation. Is this enough text to really get a feel for what Hennen is doing? Might it be said that two small poems are too little a sampling to really give a taste? or an experience?

The more I work with and explore poems as they are presented on the web — either on these sites or on on-line journals — the more I am convinced that, if ever I venture into a lit mag, I would demand from each contributor a minimum of 50 lines or more, perhaps even 80-100, of a coherent body of poetry. I would want enough to give the reader a true sampling of the poetic project which the poems represent. And not only for the reader, but for the poet also, that they are given enough space to make their argument.

Just a thought — as, here, I don't find these two poems to be enough to really tell me that much about Hennen's explorations, and I wish there were more.

But let's get to the poems. I just want to explore today. Explore the poems, what I see in them, and prompt questions for your own exploration. These poems offer much to that end — especially the first one.


To me there seems to be a clash of ideas in the first poem. While I really like putting the idea of wet roots beside the idea of a freeway, it falls apart once you get to "lost." Roots are never lost: they always have a trunk. Even when you see a photograph of roots where you can't see their parent trees, you still naturally see them as coming from a tree: they never appear lost.


To me the phrase "a description of" weakens the poem. Is it necessary to overtly connect the title and the open lines of the poem? Might it be said that if it was necessary then might be a problem with how the poem is being executed? Generally, you should never explain your jokes. That actually applies to life in general as much as it applies to poetry. If you have to explain the joke, the joke didn't work. And explaining it is not the same as successfully performing it. In writing, by my experience, pointing things out to the reader always weakens the moment and the text. Far better to let the text do the work without any such support.

It is rather the same with metaphors and similes: the latter always feel weaker because inherent to the "like" or "as" is the explaining of the connection. Metaphors ask the reader to do all the work; but, they also generate more energy because of it, because they don't limit the energy with a directional arrow like "like" or "as." (That's not the only reason similes are ideationally limited.)


Do the "geese" lines ("I come back / To geese") contribute anything to the poem? To be honest, I am not at all sure what to do with them. I see the connection between "I come back" and the idea of "lost," but that idea of "lost" was being established, it seems to me, not to be cured: the lost are to remain lost. So then "I come back" doesn't quite make sense. And I've no idea what to do with the geese. To me the lines are superfluous, and should be killed. Does the poem suffer if they are removed? Possibly, yes, in that the poem would be becoming very short, and there is no strong flow from freeways and roots to rain and dark people. But that's a problem unto itself. Assuming that problem can be fixed: do the geese lines really add to the poem?


And, since we're there, what does the first five lines of the poem (and the title) have to do with the last six? How are they connected ideationally, outside of rain and a thin connection through roadways? This mid-poem disconnect also bothers me.


But now, those last six lines, I rather like those. Except for one possible problem: the line break after "people." Should this be one line? On one side, the break creates a little emphasis on "are dark." But the break also creates two very short lines. There are other solutions beside merely conjoining the lines. There are other ways to create the emphasis: for example, a spacing within the line.

Glass and steel are shining
But people          are dark
All the way through

Not that it's necessary to keep it — and I don't think it is.


What about capitalization? There's something about these small poems that makes me want to move toward W.C. Williams and eliminate the first word capitalization:

Rain falls
on the parking meters
Glass and steel are shining
but people are dark
all the way through.

rain falls
on the parking meters
glass and steel are shining
but people are dark
all the way through.

Following Williams even more, I wonder what would happen if you gave his version of attention to shape? (Do we need the "but"?)

Rain falls
on the parking meters
Glass and steel
are shining

People are dark
all the way through.

An interesting little change. (Keep in mind, by now I'm arbitrarily focused on the last — and to me better — half of the poem.)


In the second poem, I think there is a definite problem with the last line. The poem is primarily a list of the things that night does: it "rises," it "spreads," it "laps," it "fills," and then . . . ."would make." You see the bad parallelism: a sharp change in the verb form from present-moment, affirmative statements to a conditional "would." And I am not sure that there is anything gained with it. I don't see any purpose to it that melds with the rest of the poem, any reason that the last line cannot also be a present tense statement:

Each night
Is a lake
That rises at sundown
Spreads itself thin
Laps at the house lights
Fills up low shoes
Makes fish of us all.

You notice I reconnected the middle, "laps" phrase — I don't see any reason to that break either. It creates emphasis on one part of the poem that doesn't really want it. But there is still a slight parallel issue in that the first of the list is "That rises," and that "that" disappears after that line. I think, however, rather than putting "that" into all the subsequent lines, a better move is to change the opening so the "that" is not needed:

The lake of night
Rises at sundown
Spreads itself thin
Laps at the house lights
Fills up low shoes
Makes fish of us all.

That makes for an interesting comparison/contrast to the original. Let's get Waste Land with it:

The lake of night, rises
Itself thin, laps
At the house lights, fills
Up low shoes,
Makes fish of us all.

You know, there's also a problem in that the second line is at the level of the house lights, but the third line is way down at the level of shoes. But I'm done for the night.

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